Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire

Slow fade

Several times I’ve visited the small church of Stoke Orchard, not far from Cheltenham. The main reason that Stoke Orchard is famous is because of its medieval wall paintings. They are doubly rare, first in that they survive at all and second because they depict a series of stories about St James of Compostela, an unusual saint to to celebrated on such a scale in an English parish church.

These paintings are well known among experts, and even have a mention in one of my favourite short novels, J L Carr’s A Month in the Country. In the book* the narrator Tom Birkin, a restorer of wall paintings who has just returned home from the trenches of World War I, has arrived in the fictional village of Oxgodby to uncover a wall painting in the parish church: ‘I willed it to be something good, really splendid, really astonishing. Like Stoke Orchard or Chalgrove.¶ Something to wring a mention from The Times and a detailed account (with pictures) in the Illustrated London News.’

Tom Birkin indeed finds something good. But what would a real Birkin think if he visited Stoke Orchard today? He’d probably be saddened that the paintings had faded so much, but at least his knowledge of their iconography would enable him to work out what they depict. If I tell you that the fragments in the image above are some of the clearest that remain, you will get the picture. Or not.

Fortunately the Birkin role of explicator is taken at Stoke Orchard by a series of panels with explanations and old images that are somewhat clearer than the real thing. They reveal that the section above, which you'll have to click on to have chance of seeing much at all, depicts part of the ‘Hermogenes episode’ of James’s story. Hermogenes was an evil magician whom St James converted to Christianity. In one part of the story, Hermogenes asks for the saint’s help in overcoming demons, and the magician is given James’s staff to help him. This image shows Philetus (left), an associate of the magician whom James has also converted, handing Hermogenes the staff.

English medieval church wall paintings are nearly always faint and hard to make out, having been whitewashed over during the iconoclasm of the 17th century, to be uncovered† by dedicated Birkin-figures in the 19th or 20th. Many look as if they are at the end of a long uneven cinematic slow fade and their faded state is sad. Unlike some vigorous medieval stone carvings§ that look as if they could have been done yesterday, they actually look their age, and more. But repeated visits, frequent changes of viewing position, and steady scrutiny make looking at them rewarding and worthwhile and moving too.

* A Month in the Country is widely available as a Penguin Modern Classic.
¶ In Oxfordshire, another church with outstanding paintings.
† Pevsner’s Buildings of England Volume, Gloucestershire 2: The Vale and the Forest of Dean says that the Stoke Orchard paintings were ‘mostly uncovered in 1952–56 by Clive Rouse”, making it anachronistic of J L Carr to make his hero mention them in 1918, but A Month in the Country is a novel, after all.
§ Some medieval carvings have of course been recarved by later restorers, confusing this neat picture.

Friday, November 20, 2015

King's Lynn, Norfolk

 The English pig again

I’ve noticed recently the creative use of decorative tiles in shops and on shopfronts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, butchers being particularly drawn to tiles for their decorative and hygienic qualities. It’s a large field, which I need to look into in more depth, but meanwhile I can’t resist sharing one more example that I found recently, even though I know little about it. This is a shop front in King’s Lynn, which has a number of beautiful pictorial tiles, each featuring an animal or farming scene delineated in fine detail.

I do not know who made these tiles. I know Minton used this sepia palette (I once owned a house that had a fireplace adorned with lovely Minton sepia tiles), and they produced farm scenes with drawings by William Wise, although these in Lynn do not match the examples I’ve seen. Minton as well as other companies must have had various ranges to fulfil the no doubt heavy demand. These are particularly characterful, a strong pig’s head, confronting us full on with steady gaze and creased flesh; a well drawn cow or bull’s head with a lot of fine detail; and a group of sheep huddled together in a setting of grass, twigs, and picturesquely tumbledown fencing. The sheep, I think, are conventionally charming, but to my eyes the drawing of the two animal heads is particularly strong and effective.

That all this can appear on a mass produced tile a few inches square, set off with a band of bright geometrical tiles that are also very attractive, is a tribute to the Victorian marriage of art and industry, which at its best could be harmonious and more than just eye-catching. Advertising of a kind, it’s true. But the sort of advertising that stands the test of time.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Wells, Somerset

Slightly foxed

At the weekend I was teaching a course about architectural ornament and the participants were amused and, I think, charmed by a number of variations on the classical orders that I showed them. I wanted to demonstrate that the orders weren’t necessarily regarded by masons, carvers, and builders as a set of hard-and-fast rules. They could be starting points on which the craftsman played variations. A particular hit was a Corinthian capital with a bird fluttering among its acanthus leaves in Birmingham. It reminded me that there are capitals featuring animal heads on a building in the High Street at Wells. They occur on the Bath stone facade of a bank of about 1880. But what kind of capitals are they? And what are the animals?

The official listing text for the building describes the capitals as “quasi-Ionic”; the text doesn’t mention the animals at all, not concerning itself with such trivialities. The Ionic element is the spirals, although there are also some acanthus leaves lurking at the back, so it might just as well be “quasi-Corinthian” I suppose. The beast is an oddity: the Resident Wise Woman suggested an attempted fox, observing that the ears seem to be turning into a leaves. A mythical beast? Or just a poorly carved one? No matter. It’s a bit of fun however you look at it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Victoria Street, London

On reflection

Among the rampant office blocks and stores of Victoria Street stands the Albert, a pub of 1862 built in solid yellow brick with dressings in red brick, trimmings in stucco, and a big, decisive cornice. It belonged, apparently, to the Artillery Brewery, which was just across the road and built in a similar style. In the late sun of an autumn afternoon, its brickwork glows.

The pub exterior has its fair share of the kind of decorative elaboration the Victorian pubs and their owners went in for, and the aspect of this that particularly caught my eye was the engraved glass. It's said to be original and is a cut above a lot of pub glass, which bears arabesques and curlicues of a fairly standard and formulaic nature. At the Albert we have trails of foliage, flowers, fruit, and some wonderful birds. I particularly liked the one above, though I'm not sure what species it is or whether the image is at all ornithologically accurate. My main efforts on the sunny afternoon when I passed were in trying to photograph it without including too many reflections. It's difficult, on a bright day, but I offer my efforts anyway, because I think the glass is good, if the photography is not.

And in a way, the reflections are part of the point. A pub is a social building, that wants both to include you in its image, but also to stop you looking in, to give the drinkers inside some seclusion from the street. What's more, the reflections also include some of the pub's other decorative touches. There's a mirror image of some of the ornate ironwork in my photograph below and you can see the iron "Albert" sign, shadows of iron scrolls, the reflection of the building across the road, and glimpses of some interior lights. It might be a confusing picture, but even in the sun and even with all these reflections, the decoration of the glass still shines.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Upton on Severn, Worcestershire

Great minds…

The other night I was giving a talk about the history of the high street in Britain, illustrated with pictures of shops and shop fronts down the ages. After the talk, which was in Gloucestershire close to the border with Worcestershire, a member of the audience asked me if I’d seen the recently revealed old sign above a shop in Upton on Severn, not far away. She liked it, and thought I would too. As it happened, just a few weeks earlier, I had seen it and admired it. Great minds think alike.

The shop is now Sweet Daisy, an “old-fashioned” confectionery shop, with rows of jars containing sweet things. But the proprietors, or the owners of the building if they are different, have done a fine thing, and left the rather good old sign of a long-gone firm, the London Meat Company, exposed, it having been covered up for years as other businesses had occupied the building. The bold gold capital letters of the old Meat Company are an asset to the street. They sign still look good surrounded by the bright red of the shop front, even if they’re not perhaps as bright and shiny as they were in their heyday. Which was when? I’d imagine the early-20th century, although the letters could be Victorian. The strips of green tiles with stylized flowers on them look Art Nouveau,* so perhaps the shop front and sign were done around 1900. Whatever its age, thank you Sweet Daisy for leaving the sign visible. No doubt its helps draw in the curious and paradoxically encourages the purchase of barley sugar, sherbet pips, humbugs, rhubarb and custard, Scottish tablet, and so on and on…

- - -

*Which I omitted to photograph in close-up. Next time I’m passing…

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

The English pig

Going back a few years from my previous post and we reach around 1910 and the golden age for English tiled shopfronts, when the architectural ceramicists were still being influenced by the swirls and curls of the Art Nouveau style, and before World War I banished jollity. Welcome, then, to the premises of Jesse Smith, butcher of Cirencester, a company that has hung on to a lovely Edwardian shopfront and interior, one with tiles that beautifully celebrate the pig and what a butcher can do with it.

 It begins before we even get inside the shop, with a pig portrait in one door reveal and, low down in another (above: almost obscured by some barbecuing equipment last time I passed) a legend in curvaceous Art Nouveau lettering designed to make the pig fancier’s mouth water: Pickled tongues. The design on the right of this image, with its sinuous lines and mysterious semicircles (Do they evoke stylised flowers or seed heads?) would not look out of place in Vienna. The Secession comes to the Cotswolds for a short break.

Inside, porcine eyes follow you round the room as you contemplate cuts of pork and home-made pies. Around and above them swirl the arabesques so typical of Art Nouveau design, scrolls of foliage and tendrils that curl this way and that, describing those two-way “whiplash” curves that turn-of-the-century designers so loved. Was there ever a pig so jaunty as the specimen to the right of the interior wall in my top photograph, with nose upturned, one ear up and one ear down? It’s a characterful beast, but the one on the left (and enlarged in my photograph above) seems to me a more convincing specimen of pigginess: this is an animal, after all, that’s built to look down towards the ground and rootle.

As I come out clutching my pork pie, I reflect that I know few better architectural celebrations of the English pig. But I also reflect that the French know a thing or two too. Wasn’t Paris a cradle of Art Nouveau? And don’t they say that Tout est bon dans le cochon?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Great Malvern, Worestershire

Postcards from England

I’m fascinated by the way in which shop designers used tiles to make a colourful splash on street frontages, a type of decoration that enlivened many a shop front from the Victorian period until well into the 1930s. One of my favourite examples of this is on the front of a branch of W H Smith in Malvern, and one of its tile panels came to mind the other day when, in my previous post, I used the phrase ‘postcards from England’ to describe my blogging activities. This is a building I’ve posted before but one of its tile panels* is so beautiful, and, I think, so mysterious, that’s worth sharing once more.

This panel, set into a narrow reveal to one side of the shop window and so very easy to miss, advertises postcards – clearly, in a much visited spa town like Malvern, postcards were an important thing to stock. The view it depicts is a bit of fantasy architecture by moonlight. A medieval stone bridge leads across a river towards a gatehouse in what looks like a town wall. In the background is a looming tower, that seems to exist in a space that’s separate from the rest of the picture. Or not quite. In the foreground, the corner of this tower seems to grow out of the bridge, but in the background it appears to be behind the city wall. It’s also drawn, to seems to me, to a much larger scale than the bridge or gatehouse.

None of this matters very much, because the image, with its varied shades of blue and purple and its eery moonlight is a lovely confection that seems to invite us into a world of night-time mystery and make-believe. It certainly draws you in, although a postcard with a run-of-mill photographic view on it might be a bit of a come down after seeing it.

The other wonderful thing about the tile panel of course is that (together with another opposite it advertising maps) is still there. It must have been installed in the 1920s or 1930s and it takes us back to a time when shop fronts were designed for a life of decades rather than a year or two, when businesses weren’t expected to reinvent themselves every six months, but traded on their history and reputation. My readers can decide for themselves whether or not the change to a less long-term outlook is a good thing. But I’m glad at least that the old ways produced bits of occasional art like this.
- - -
*Made by Carter's of Poole, as one of my fastest-off-the-mark readers has reminded me.